Camen Design

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The Price That Cannot Be Bartered

The Internet through the joining of municipal enterprise and private generosity offers to all the people perpetual and free access to knowledge and the thought of all the ages.

Modified from the quote by Roscoe C. Brown over the entrance of the Brooklyn Public Library

The problem we face is that our desire for the content produced and then distributed using the Internet has to be paid for in some way. The content producers want to turn the library in to a book shop, when what we want is a coffee shop in the library so we can buy refreshment, but the fundamental openness of the Library doesn’t change.

We pay our Internet Service Providers to jack us in to the ’Net, but the content producers do not see that revenue divvied up to pay for the content—not that it would stretch that thin anyhow. All content producers have the right to charge for their content, but it is difficult to charge for content on a network that by default facilitates the free exchange of information without repsonsibility and therefore Internet users are not a cornered market; they will get their content from numerous sources as well as the ones they may pay for.

Imagine an Internet that was closed by default. You have to negotiate terms with Disney to link to their website. Every Internet node has legal responsibility (and repercussions) for the information that passes through it. On such an Internet, if you wanted to view a site in Australia you would have to phone ahead to arrange it.

The previous currency for free content on the Internet used to be attention (or more precisely: traffic). By simply having free content that gained a lot of attention, it was perceived to be valuable by companies. This is why AOL paid $850 million for Bebo in 2008 to go on to sell it for less than $10 million in 2010. Attention does not stay in one place.

The problem with attention, as a currency, is that it doesn’t tell you anything useful. It only achieves in getting lots of eyeballs on your adverts, which is good, but it does not solve the advertiser’s dilemma:

Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted;
the trouble is I don’t know which half.

John Wanamaker, US department store merchant (1838–1922)

A new currency has emerged which aims to solve this problem.

Privacy has become the currency of free content. Privacy is easily exchanged for content, has no measurable value to the individual, but is collectively very valuable to producers.

We have to choose between a lack of privacy or price and most will opt to sell their privacy.

Kroc Camen,

This has been made possible because of the one-sided control of privacy offered.

Screenshot of iTunes EULA with “agree” and “disagree” buttons

This is an all or nothing affair. You either agree to give them your data or you don’t use the product at all. In the case of buying a computer or a phone, it’s even worse. You either agree to give them the data they ask for, or you pack the product up and you send it back to the store.

Where is the choice for me? Why can I not agree to some parts and not others when it comes to data? Where is the checkbox for section 4 in this EULA that lets me choose not to provide data, but continue to use the product?

Screenshot of iTunes EULA showing section 4: Consent of Use of Data

Sending them data is not physically required for the binary to run on my computer even when I’m offline. This black-or-white “agree” or “disagree” choice is not only wrong, it’s unethical. If you move your boundary an inch, then they will move it a mile. Once you have agreed to one thing and are using the product, the producer can move the boundary posts and present you the choice of agreeing to yet more or to stop using the product you have already invested in (such as your iTunes library and purchases).

This kind of gradualism works because of human nature. We are terrible at quantising the implications of some uncertain factor far in the distance. People smoke because they don’t drop dead with the first puff. It’s an uncertain problem far in the distance that they can ignore. If the first pack of cigarettes cost the full amount of a life-time of smoking, and every pack there-after was free, then not as many people would smoke because the full cost would be up-front rather than uncertain and spread out.

With privacy, the boundaries can continually be moved—along with our perception of what is “normal” privacy—because if given the choice of missing out on something exciting or some uncertain, vague, long-term privacy risk, most will choose the latter.

The value of our own individual personal privacy is not defined in a term relative to the value that producers get from it collectively. They have set the exchange rate and are hurriedly devaluing our personal privacy value to the point that we will give away any privacy for any trivially small thing.

Our data does have value and companies are more than happy to farm this data for their profits. Until we clearly define the value of our data and that we have the right to control it, big companies will continue with this practice of easily accessing and sharing our data under the guise of “your privacy is important to us”.

Michael Coates—Automatic Opt-In Privacy Policy Changes - Your Privacy is Important to Us

There is no solution to this—there are solutions, but nothing that can see an industry wide acceptance of profit-driven motives choosing to not make use of our data to better drive profits. I can only wonder how isolated from people and what world-view the person who implements the actual data-collecting, has.

I’m not actually concerned about what anybody may do with my personal data, it certainly has its own risks, but the actual greater risk is that the right of choice may be eventually removed entirely and that we could end up seeing a total dependence upon a corporate entity just to function in society. Imagine if you simply could not communicate with government services unless you had a Facebook account. Imagine you must choose between giving all your privacy away to a corporation or you must choose to be homeless because without that corporation’s services you cannot pay bills, transfer money, buy things, communicate with other people or any basic necessity in society. That is, for society to be locked into technology to the point that it is an actual life and death choice. We’re partially there—you cannot switch off the Internet—but I certainly see technology lock-in (and privacy lock-out) happening in my life time. Opt-out is the new opt-in.

I have a mostly developer readership and my call to you is to not give corporate-controlled identity an inch in your work. Use Open ID. Don’t even provide Twitter or Facebook as a login option. Don’t rely on third party APIs that you can’t control and that only further the parent company’s interests rather than the interests of society as a whole.

This choice you can make.